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Kyrgyzstan: Eyewitness To The Revolution

The protests in Bishkek that brought down President Akaev's government Bishkek, 24 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch arrived in Bishkek early on 24 March to cover the increasing unrest in Kyrgyzstan. He first went to RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau to write an article on the situation before hearing about a demonstration near the White House, Kyrgyzstan's government headquarters. Here is his account of the events leading up to the storming of the White House and the fall of the government of President Askar Akaev:

"I first went to a fairly small demonstration of about 2,000 to 3,000 people in another part of Bishkek. Several opposition leaders addressed the crowd for about 2 to 3 hours in a very peaceful atmosphere. Afterwards, they slowly moved toward the White House and were joined by another group of opposition supporters. There was a hardcore group of a few hundred [young men], most of them equipped with wooden sticks and wooden shields. About 5,000 total protesters were also there and perhaps 5,000 passersby who were very curiously watching everything.

"The [group] moved towards government headquarters [where the security forces were]. There were reports that there were some provocations on the part of the government (some agent provocateurs in the crowd who started hitting protesters). Four of them were reportedly severely beaten by protesters.
"You could see the fear on the faces of the members of the security forces. There were less than 100 of them."

"After this started, the situation changed dramatically. Suddenly there was a greater deployment of more police and security forces" near where the confrontation was taking place. "The protesters were beating policemen with wooden sticks and...throwing stones at the police forces and, of course, the police used their batons and shields.

"The police forces, which probably numbered several hundred, managed to move toward the center of the square and repel the protesters; and it looked like the police had the upper hand for about two minutes, and then, after two or three [more] minutes, the protesters managed to repel the police forces, and this is exactly the moment when the clashes broke out. Since the crowd seemed pretty aggressive, the police took the initiative and moved toward the protesters and started repelling them until they [after some time] were repelled themselves.

"But then the opposition protesters [stormed through the police and Interior Ministry troops]. The security forces dispersed and fled very quickly. The crowd then climbed over the fences surrounding the government building, smashed open the doors, and entered the building. [The time from the] first provocations to the storming of the building was about one hour. And the taking of the [entire] building took about 20 minutes.

"What is surprising is that a few meters away from the square, life [was] still absolutely normal. Traffic [was] normal and people [were] shopping and walking as if nothing was happening.

There was a National Guard-like force "standing in reserve behind the White House. But after the storming of the White House, they left orderly on the command of their officers. And the crowd that was there applauded them. You could see the fear on the faces of the members of the security forces. There were less than 100 of them and [they were facing] about 5,000 protesters and 5,000 others. The situation reminded me of Moscow in 1993 when the army stormed the parliament.

"I eventually managed to go into the parliament with [my RFE/RL colleague from the Russian Service, Andrei Babitskii], and another journalist. All the doors were blocked, officially to prevent people from looting. There was a lot of damage done; the building was ransacked. Everything was carried away. Computers, printers, and smashed furniture. [The opposition forces] had posted security guards around the building but" they didn't seem to help very much. I didn't get in there until about 8 p.m. [That was] four or five hours after the storming.

"[I talked to former Bishkek Mayor and ex-Kyrgyz Vice President Feliks Kulov, who had just been released from five years in jail on what many people believe were trumped up charges. I asked him if he knew where Kyrgyz President Akaev was]. He said he had no idea whether [Akaev] had left the country or was still in the country. [Kulov said he wanted Akaev to formally resign as president], not to just run away from the office.

"[Kulov's release came about this way]. After the storming of the White House the crowd started chanting for Kulov to be freed. They then went to his prison, which is outside of Bishkek, and the head of the prison went to Kulov and asked him to leave the prison because if he didn't leave he said the people would storm the prison. Kulov told us that he left only because he didn't want that to happen. He was forced to leave because he wanted to prevent them from storming the prison. [Kulov added that he would go back to serve his sentence and wait until his name is cleared of the charges, which he says are politically motivated.]

"The mood among the people is that the people are very happy but they are also kind of having a 'hangover.' Kulov is very much concerned about maintaining public order in Bishkek and he will try to restore [it]. There are no police forces, no guards; everyone has vanished.

"On my way back to the hotel I saw a lot of looting going on. It's a very dark city and I saw masses of people standing around big stores and markets and just taking away things.

"[Opposition leader Kurmanbek] Bakiev described how things happened today, and said he did not expect the storming of the White House. He told me 'We did not expect that at all. It was not a part of the plan.' [The demonstrators] just wanted to have peaceful protests.

"There is a lot of lawlessness and chaos tonight, but it is kind of self-contained. It's basically around supermarkets and shops. For the time being it is not dangerous. People are definitely happy that Akaev left but generally not happy with how it happened. I think they would have preferred another method.

"[It's 2 a.m. and] most people have left for home though a lot of curious people are still just walking around looking to see what happened. Except for the hardcore group, which is celebrating [and probably doing the looting]. But there is not real jubilation. The people want the power vacuum to be filled. And they want to have security.

"The situation is very confused right now."

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